#1 Magic Act Pet Peeve

If you’re not a magic geek, this may not be for you.

I started doing magic tricks when I was 7, started making money doing shows when I was 11. I’m 41 now… I think. I have booked hundreds of magic acts through Scot Nery’s Boobietrap. I have watched way too many magic acts. All this is not to say that I’m an expert, but to say how many painful experiences I’ve had with magic!

Little peeves

  • I don’t like bad costumes like wearing a vest that’s made to be worn under a coat, wearing a polyester suit that’s supposed to look like a real suit, dressing like a person from the seduction community, unintentionally worn-out clothes (there’s better stuff at goodwill), pretty much any form of “sexy,”
  • I don’t like alien props… as in “Here I have a typical aluminum box with 14 springs attached. You’ll never believe what I can do with it”
  • I’d like to say here, Lance Burton had a theater built for him in Vegas. In this theater, you felt like anything can happen. That’s not really the right setup for a magic show. The best setup is : nothing can happen except what I understand is real… then the magician breaks your brain. Lance Burton was incredible 1 in a million and he overcame this limitation with all but some of his biggest illusions.
  • I don’t like playing cards. Card tricks are a classic of magic, but have the same issue as alien props. I want magic that bends my reality. If you see a picture of someone with playing cards, do you think “that’s a person who likes cribbage,” or “that’s a magician?” The latter. Cards are generally seen as a magician’s prop and so the audience starts with the idea that you can do whatever with them. A magician gets fewer demerits for using cards as a physical object like in coin matrix or manip acts.
  • I don’t like long stories that aren’t good. David Copperfield would do stories but he did a good job and it was long ago that I saw them. If stories don’t sound true, are not really tied to a trick, are just freaking long, are overly sentimental… just stop! Sure, we want to get to know a person, but we’re here for the tricks. You’re like a recipe blog. David Copperfield also earned your attention for a story by doing a bunch of jaw-droppers first.
  • Patchwork patter. I’m not totally against using stock jokes, but I’ve only seen a few people use them well. If one joke sounds like it’s from 1930, then the next joke sounds like it’s from 2010, and you don’t have a time-travel themed show, WTF!? I see this with tricks too. The entire premise changes from trick to trick because they were all created by different people at different times.
  • Why are you wearing a tuxedo and pulling out a paper bag and a ketchup bottle?
  • Stories about Houdini. You have no personal take on Houdini. I wouldn’t want to watch Houdini today; he would be boring by today’s standards. Your story’s too long. It’s about nothing. If you’re going to give me a history lesson, make it something that improves my life.
  • Super complicated tricks that take forever and only one miracle happens. “I take the key you signed and put it in a walnut shell painted the color you picked and place it slightly over a coin…”
  • Crappy victim / volunteer work. I wrote about it more here. Usually sexist in magic.

Seeing all these listed out, I’m realizing there are few magicians that don’t present a peeve! Doesn’t mean I don’t like watching those magicians. Doesn’t mean I don’t think they can do better.

What’s the point of magic

I think the point of a magic trick is to make the audience feel wrong just like a joke. A joke leads you down a path, then has a delightful twist that shows you your assumption was wrong.

“The other morning my sister made some eggs. So we cooked them…”
Emo Philips

A great trick delivers an audience from the world they thought they knew into a new world with limitless potential.

According to Christopher Priest, magic tricks come in three acts the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. The prestige is the moment of emotional reward for the turn. Going with this model, the game for the badass magician is to broaden the gap for the magician. How do you make the setup as different from the twist as possible, then make the resolution as different from the twist as possible.

A magician makes the audience feel even more wrong when the audience feels they are an expert then proves they’re way off. For example, I feel like know pretty much everything about a credit card, what its physical properties are etc. It’s a very simple thing to be an expert of. A credit card out of my own pocket — I have more expertise. I know it’s not rigged. That’s why alien props irk me. The setup’s no good.

If the turn is that you can put the credit card in some weird box, and make it look like it’s getting pierced, this isn’t a huge turn. If you take a dollar also from my pocket, roll it up and drive it thru the middle of the card, now you’re breaking my reality.

The big one: no deliverance

My big peeve with a comedian is when they don’t let the audience laugh. My big peeve for magicians is when they don’t let the audience wonder. A great trick has a sharpness. It’s been proven that reality has shifted and the audience is suddenly off the edge of a cliff. Deliver them!!!

Here’s how to step on a laugh…

  • don’t save the twist until the end of the joke
  • kinda related to that: make it seem like something else is happening, where laughing would be rude
  • make your joke in the form of a question (then people have to think about their response instead of thinking about the joke)
  • make the setup too long for us to care about the punchline

Here’s how to step on wonder…

  • tell some story about “I once saw this guy do this thing…” that distracts from the real story — the trick happening in your hands right now
  • dilute the turn with complication so we don’t focus on what’s magical
  • fill up a trick with jokes or ‘clever’ patter
  • rush to protect the audience from that cliff by moving on too quickly
  • telegraphing the cliff
  • forcing a response like applause instead of drawing it out of them when they’re ready

Magic in itself is amazing

Unlike other variety arts, you don’t have to be good at magic for people to watch it – and most magicians aren’t. You can be different. You can be better. You can be magical.

Written for folks who want to attract and energize groups

Scot Nery is an emcee who has helped some of the biggest companies in the world achieve entertainment success. He's on an infinite misson to figure out what draws people in and engages them with powerful moments.

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